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New Jersey Governor's Race Down To The Wire

Updates from Colorado, Illinois and Washington

By Stuart Rothenberg

WASHINGTON (Oct. 9) -- Republican Gov. Christine Whitman continues to fight for her political life, as she continues to hold onto an uncomfortable lead against Democratic challenger James McGreevey.

McGreevey, a mayor and state legislator who won his party's gubernatorial nomination in an upset against Cong. Robert Andrews (D-NJ 1), continues to pound away at Whitman's two greatest weaknesses: automobile insurance rates and taxes.

Voters continue to rate the governor's performance on those two issues as unsatisfactory, and that has Republicans concerned, since voters also say those two issues are among their top concerns going into next month's balloting. Republicans hope to neutralize the tax issue, which initially was thought to be a significant advantage for the governor, by attacking McGreevey's record in the legislature, including his support for a tax increase that was passed under former governor Jim Florio (D).

But Whitman continues to hold some important advantages in her race. McGreevey is still not nearly as well known as he needs to be, and he has had to devote too much time late in the campaign to raising money.

The challenger probably is also disadvantaged by the state's campaign finance law, which places a $6.9 million limit on campaign spending. While the ceiling guarantees that the incumbent can't overwhelm McGreevey with money, it also, according to some Democratic insiders, makes it difficult for the challenger to develop a high profile statewide, especially because the state is sandwiched between two expensive media markets, New York City and Philadelphia.

Recent polls have shown Whitman leading McGreevey by 10 to 12 points, but the governor usually attracts less than 50 percent of the vote when matched against the rest of the field. History shows that, in most cases, incumbents actually get close to the percentage of the vote that they attract in polls, with most undecided voters either supporting the challenger or not voting at all. In this case, however, Whitman might actually do a bit better among undecided voters, since McGreevey isn't well known and the public is generally content about the direction of the country, as well as about the direction of the state. In an early September Star-Ledger/Eagleton Institute poll, 56 percent of respondents said the state was heading in the right direction, while 35 percent said that things had "pretty seriously" gotten off on the wrong track.

The winner of the race may not get even half of the total votes cast. That's because at least one third party hopeful, Libertarian nominee Murray Sabrin, could draw a few percentage points. Sabrin has raised enough money to qualify for matching funds, which also guarantees that he will be included in televised debates. His addition is a wild card. He could hurt Whitman by attacking her from the right and draining off conservative voters who are already angry with her support for gay rights issues and her opposition to banning partial-birth abortions, or he could allow the governor to position herself as a mainstream moderate conservative, giving her added credibility with moderate Democratic voters and women.

Most observers expect Whitman to win re-election by a relatively narrow margin. That could dampen talk of her as a national Republican figure. But this race isn't over yet, and Democrats remember that McGreevey overcame long odds in his race to with the nomination. The contest leans to Whitman, but is still in play.

Updates from around the country

Illinois Senate State Comptroller Loleta Didrickson, widely mentioned as the moderate Republicans' last hope to enter the GOP Senate race, has decided to run for secretary of state. State legislator Peter Fitzgerald remains the most serious Republican in the race, and he would be a strong opponent for incumbent Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun. Veteran Democrat Michael Bakalis, who has been critical of the senator and mulled a challenge to her, has announced he won't run against Moseley-Braun in the Democratic primary. While all of this is good news for Moseley-Braun, she still is in very serious trouble in her re-election bid.

Colorado Senate Cong. David Skaggs, widely regarded as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic Senate nomination, has decided to retire. He will neither run for re-election nor for the Senate. That leaves Dottie Lamm, wife of former governor (and one-time Reform Party hopeful) Dick Lamm, as the Democrat most frequently mentioned for the Senate. Incumbent Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) could still be challenged in the GOP primary by Cong. Scott McInnis (R-CO 3), who would be a very formidable opponent.

Washington Senate Cong. George Nethercutt (R-WA 5) apparently has decided against running for the Senate, and an announcement could come at any time. But GOP insiders caution not to bet the farm on that decision, since Nethercutt has already reversed himself repeatedly about whether to challenge Cong. Linda Smith (R-WA 3) for the Senate nomination.

Spotlight Archives:

Pennsylvania's 15th C.D. Looks Competitive (12/09/97)
In Idaho, A Rare Opportunity For Dems (11/19/97)
Stay The Course (11/6/97)
Car-Tax Issue Lifts Gilmore In Virginia (10/23/97)
New Jersey Governor's Race Down To The Wire (10/9/97)
Idaho Scramble: Who's Running For What? (9/25/97)
Hawaii's 1st C.D. Looks Like A Powder Keg (9/10/97)
Molinari's Departures Leaves Opening For Dems (8/25/97)
Georgia Governor's Race A Free-For-All (8/12/97)
Rep. Jon Fox Faces A One-Two Punch (7/30/97)
Sen. Hollings Prepares For A Fifth Term (7/22/97)
The House: Looking Ahead To 1998 (7/15/97)
Sen. Bond Has Re-election Edge (7/7/97)
Bumpers' Decision Encourages GOP (7/3/97)
Kentucky Senatorial Race A Toss-Up (6/24/97)
Nevada's Senator Reid Looks Like An Early Favorite (6/17/97)
1998 Gubernatorial Ratings (6/17/97)
Indiana's Evan Bayh Could Reclaim His Father's Old Senate Seat (6/3/97)
Who Will Control The House After '98? (5/30/97)
New Mexico's 3rd District: Color It Republican Green (5/20/97)
Don't Look For Many Senate Retirements In '98 (5/13/97)
Louisiana Senate, 1996: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over (5/5/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Re-election Ratings (4/25/97)
Dem, GOP Tests In Connecticut, Arizona (4/9/97)
Don't Count Al D'Amato Out Yet (3/25/97)
Whitman A Favorite In New Jersey (2/25/97)
Sen. Boxer Could Be Vulnerable (2/11/97)
Impressive Bloodlines In Minnesota Governor's Race (1/28/97)
Looking Ahead To '98 Gubernatorial Races In California, Florida (1/23/97)
Rothenberg's Senate Ratings (1/23/97)
Family Feud: The Fight for RNC Chairman (1/10/97)

Spotlight 1996

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